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Council wants a one-year contract with Austin police to allow voters to weigh in on oversight measures

A parked Austin Police SUV
Gabriel C. Pérez
Austinites will vote on two ballot measures dealing with police oversight in May.

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The Austin City Council OK'd a measure to pursue a one-year labor contract with the city’s police union shortly after firing the city manager Wednesday.

The contract would serve as a placeholder until Austinites vote on two competing ballot measures that address police oversight: One would increase citizen involvement in investigations into police misconduct, and the other could weaken the oversight system.

Council plans to renegotiate a long-term deal with the police union after that May vote.

Council members heard hours of testimony Wednesday ahead of their 9-2 vote. Two-thirds of speakers at City Hall supported the temporary contract.

Council was set to approve a resolution for a one-year contract last week, but that vote was delayed, in part, because City Manager Spencer Cronk negotiated for a four-year contract. Council members had already coalesced around the one-year agreement and took Cronk to task for negotiating the other deal.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Mayor Kirk Watson said the confusion surrounding the contract was the product of "all or nothing BS" and that Cronk's proposed four-year agreement was "sprung on [Council]" overnight.

"Let me be clear: We are not going to do our business like this anymore. It stops today," he said. "The outcomes are too important."

Looming over the confusion are the two May ballot measures.

One measure was initiated by Equity Action, a group helmed by longtime criminal justice advocates. It seeks to expand the powers and autonomy of the Office of Police Oversight during investigations into police misconduct.

The other measure also aims to strengthen police oversight, but it was largely funded by the Austin Police Association. The union contributed $287,000 to a group called Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability.

Opponents argue the latter petition counters the EquityAction effort by removing an officer's ability to make an anonymous complaint, restricting the Office of Police Oversight's access to certain records and sealing certain disciplinary records. EquityAction has claimed canvassers intentionally misled people who signed that petition.

Last week, Council approved ballot language to differentiate the two items; both are on the May 6 ballot.

The union has argued the one-year contract will scuttle a year's worth of negotiations and could jeopardize a long-term contract after the May election. It also says a temporary deal could jeopardize the department's retention and recruitment efforts. There are roughly 300 vacancies on the police force.

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, APA President Thomas Villarreal said the union needs assurances that a four-year option is still viable ahead of negotiations for the temporary deal.

"You guys know where we stand. ... I'm just going to reiterate that you guys have a four-year deal," he said. "I am not going to negotiate a one-year contract until y'all give us resolution on a four-year deal."

Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voted against the plan. Alter said she understood the community's desire to negotiate a one-year deal, but suggested Council occasionally caves to public sentiment without thinking through the details, alluding to the city's decision to decriminalize homelessness in 2019.

"Those choices have not always been prudent, and we've had to pay the cost for those decisions – whether by the voters rejecting the choices we have made or losing the general public's trust."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Council had approved a one-year contract with the police. Council members voted to pursue a one-year contract.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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